From the Permit Raj to the Billionaire Raj: Corruption, Liberalization, and Income Inequality in India

For over a year, tens of thousands of Indian farmers camped on the highways of New Delhi in protest of three new agricultural laws heralded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Those laws proposed a national framework for liberalizing the country’s heavily-regulated agricultural markets, allowing farmers to sell their crop yields on the private market rather than selling at fixed prices in government-regulated wholesale markets. While Modi and other proponents of the laws argued that these regulated markets failed to improve farmers’ livelihoods and were rife with corruptionopponents feared that the laws would create an unregulated free market dominated by large, exploitative corporations. On September 5, the protests against the laws culminated in a mass rally of over half a million farmers. Two months later, Modi announced that he would be repealing the laws, a stunning public reversal that few had expected from the ordinarily unyielding Prime Minister. 

To put these most recent developments in a broader context, the dispute over the farm laws showcases a debate over liberalization and deregulation in India that has been raging for more than half a century. It is a story not only of competing visions for the country’s economy, but also of the deep interrelation between corruption and income inequality. As the agriculture fight demonstrates, liberalization has been offered as a mechanism to solve both problems. But a closer look at India’s experience with liberalization complicates this theory. Liberalization may have helped fuel the country’s precipitous economic rise, but it only further exacerbated income inequality while further entrenching the systems of corruption that favor the country’s wealthy elite. At best, unchecked liberalization in India has simply repackaged corruption in new forms; at worst, it has allowed corruption to flourish.

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Corruption and Liberalization: Two Paradoxes

Some aspects of a comprehensive anticorruption strategy are specifically targeted at corruption itself. But sometimes it makes sense to consider how broader political or economic reforms might ameliorate or exacerbate the corruption problem. Indeed, fighting corruption is often invoked – perhaps sincerely, perhaps strategically – as a justification for more general political and economic liberalization. But the relationship between political and economic liberalization, on the one hand, and corruption, on the other, is complicated, and beset by two seeming paradoxes:

Here’s the first paradox: On the one hand, longstanding democracies seem to have lower levels of corruption than do non-democracies. However, the process of democratization – the introduction of democratic reforms, along with a general liberalization of the political system – often seems associated with a significant increase in corruption. Indeed, countries going through democratic transitions, or those that have been democratic for a shorter time, seem not only to have more corruption than established democracies, but also to have worse corruption problems, on average, than non-democracies.

The second paradox, on the economic side, is similar: Some research suggests that more open economies – with more market competition, fewer state-owned enterprises, and less central economic planning – have lower levels of corruption than more statist economies. (This should not be overstated: it’s not that more regulation always increases corruption, nor is there convincing evidence that “bigger” governments, measured by the size of the public sector relative to GNP, have more corruption. Still, the balance of the evidence suggests that more open, liberal economies have less severe corruption than more statist economies.) However, the process of economic liberalization—including privatization, deregulation, etc.—often appears associated with an increase, often a dramatic increase, in corruption.

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